We may be tentatively optimistic about returning to in-person teaching in the autumn, but there is a strong possibility that a remote component will remain integral to future ‘blended learning’ approaches.
In this blog post, I will present three tips for fun activities while teaching on Zoom. This draws on my experience of teaching seminars online at University College London (UCL) in the January-March 2021 term, as part of a teaching team for a first-year undergraduate ‘introduction to IR’ style module.
I will conclude with some reflections on how these activities can be adapted for future online or ‘blended learning’ teaching.
1. The ice-breaker
Love them or hate them, ice-breaker activities are a great way to start a term, particularly for first-year students new to a university. They can help you get to know your students, allow your students to learn something about you, and – most importantly – help the students get to know each other.
The best ice-breakers involve some practical activity: you may be mean enough to make them stand up and move about the room; the kindest among us will be satisfied by asking people to raise their hands, while you write things on the board. How to recreate this in the Zoom classroom?
With a hearty thank you to Dr Ellie Brooks (University of Edinburgh) for the inspiration, I created an activity I called ‘Your Zoom identity’. I put pairs of students into breakout rooms, asked them to say hello, and get prepared to introduce each other to the class. So far, so normal.
The twist on things was that I asked students to then work out how to update their Zoom background or profile picture. Asking them to discuss some of their hobbies or interests, I gave them a challenge: can you update your background or profile with an image that reflects an aspect of your personality or identity? Recognising that they might not work this out in time, I told them to at least be prepared to introduce each other!
While students were in their breakout rooms (for 7-10 minutes), I changed my own virtual background, channelling my inner nerd with an image from the interior of the Tardis. As well as allowing me to reflect my interest in sci-fi, it also lent itself to some bad jokes about their being plenty of space in this Zoom classroom. I had some images ready to reflect other aspects of my personality, in case these came up in the conversations (an image of a cinema, and of the Arsenal stadium).
Ensure you have these images ready in advance! Zoom provide some guidance. Once you are in the Zoom room, you can access the backgrounds by clicking next to the ‘Start video’ icon. Unless you are really professional and actually have one, uncheck the ‘I have a green screen’ box, otherwise your image will be very fuzzy (it would also be a good idea to tell the students this!).
Setting up your virtual background
This activity was mainly useful in allowing me to reflect some aspects of my personality to the class. Only a small number of students in each group were able to work out how to change their backgrounds in time: in future I would consider sharing the guidance on how to do this with the students in advance. However, even those who weren’t able to change their image were able to explain what image they would have used if they could.
The activity also had a longer-term goal: by introducing students to the virtual background setting on Zoom, I was able to tell them that they can use this function if they are ever uncomfortable about the setting they are calling in from. Ideally, this knowledge would help students feel comfortable turning their camera on, when they know they can block out their real background settings.
My Tardis classroom
2. Role-play activities
With the success of the virtual background ice-breaker activity in Week 1 of the module, I returned to this in later weeks to enliven the role-play activities that are a common part of IR teaching. For the week on Realism, to help students apply the key concepts to contemporary events, I asked students to imagine they were a group of foreign policy advisors to the UK government. I asked them to pick a case of conflict from contemporary international politics (the Iran nuclear programme; interventions in the Syrian war; Russia and Ukraine; Russia and NATO; the South China Sea dispute; or other relevant examples), and undertake a Realist analysis of this conflict. Based on this analysis, what would your main policy advice to the UK government be in relation to this conflict?
While introducing the task, I changed my virtual background to the image below: a scene from a Downing Street meeting room, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson engaged in a G7 conference with other heads of government. Using this image allowed me to add colour to what might have otherwise been a fairly dour introduction to the task.
Downing Street meeting room - image licensed under the United Kingdom Open Government Licence v3.0
The students seemed to enjoy this, with one bit of mid-term feedback backing this up: “I enjoy my seminar leader (Patrick) he's so interactive and makes us think – I like the little role play we do at the end with being foreign policy secretary”. I judged this a success, and repeated the trick a few more times in the term.
For instance, during the week on Feminism, I asked students to imagine they were part of a new government led by ‘Sir Patrick Pinkerton’, tasked with developing a ‘feminist foreign policy’ agenda: what would you present as the main objectives of a feminist foreign policy for the UK? While introducing this task, I used the background below, showing off my very basic photoshop skills!
This again received some positive feedback from at least one student, who emailed the module convenor to say “this week's seminar with Patrick was both fun and academically fulfilling, something which I always find hard to achieve through Zoom.”
'Sir Patrick Pinkerton' outside No 10 - image licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0
You’ll note here that the image is inverted: this is to ensure it comes out the right way when you have the ‘Mirror my video’ box checked (as is the default setting on Zoom).
3. The Zoom quiz
Along with everyone else in the world (or so it seemed), I took part in many a Zoom quiz during lockdown. As we approached the end of the teaching term on this module, I thought: why not transfer some of the skills learnt from my Zoom quiz to the Zoom classroom?
Taking inspiration from a ‘Pointless’-style quiz round some friends regularly deployed, I designed the following activity for the seminar on War and Conflict. Putting students into pairs or groups of three, I asked them to think of a war or conflict that the UK has been involved in since 1990. I asked one student to write this down, so they could hold it up to the camera. Can you think of one that the other groups will not think of? I also asked them to briefly discuss the reason(s) why the UK got involved in this war or conflict, and whether this was related to any of the three main themes for this week’s seminar (civil war/insurgency; terrorism; Genocide/humanitarian intervention).
I then used the spinner from this website to decide on the order the groups gave their answer. If you are the only group to name a certain war or conflict you get a point, but if another group has the same one as you, neither gets a point. This activity again got some good incidental feedback, with two students mentioning to the module convenor during office hours how much they liked the seminar, especially the UK conflict 'elimination game' that I did.
So these are my three tips for enlivening the Zoom seminar room!
If we are back in the classroom for the next academic year, for seminars at least, these activities will lose their direct applicability. However, with platforms such as Zoom likely to be integral to future IT-driven, ‘blended learning’ approaches, there are still some lessons which can be learnt.
- Teaching students how to use virtual backgrounds, or other means of blurring out their real-world setting, can be helpful in encouraging them to turn their cameras on, without fear of opening up an unwanted window into their personal environments. There is also guidance on how to do this on MS Teams. things are much more difficult on Blackboard Collaborate, but some workarounds are explained in this blog post from the University of Southampton.
- Positive use of visuals and interactive websites can always be used within the classroom. Before the pandemic, I used Mentimeter and Kahoot to run polls and quizzes in lectures and seminars, so the spinner and context-specific background images can just be added to your teaching repertoire.
- Whatever technology you use in the classroom (virtual or physical), ensure you are familiar with these before deploying them in front of your students. I was comfortable with these Zoom techniques after many months of work and leisure time spent on the platform, but I’ve been less fortunate in the lecture theatre when trying to use websites such as Mentimeter for the first time.
- Finally, make sure you are clear and consistent in your use of technology, and that the choices you make are grounded in concrete learning objectives. Pedagogical research demonstrates that “teachers should have a clear goal of why they want to use [technology] and be consistent in their choice”, as inconsistency “gives students the impression that the teacher does not know why he or she wants to use it and more or less uses [the technology] for the sake of using it.” Furthermore, “[f]or meaningful learning to occur, the task needs to align well with students’ individual learning goals and with the objectives and characteristics of the course.” If you can find the right technology to match your task, then students will know it is not a gimmick, but something that can make their learning experience more fulfilling and enjoyable.
About the author
Patrick Pinkerton is an Associate Lecturer (Teaching) in Department of Political Science & School of Public Policy, University College London. He is also a co-convenor of the BISA Poststructural Politics Working Group.
 Nielsen, K., Hansen, G. and Stav, J. 2013. Teaching with Student Response Systems (SRS): Teacher-Centric Aspects that can Negatively Affect Students’ Experience of Using SRS. Research in Learning Technology. 23, p. 5
 Waycott, J., Dalgarno, B., Kennedy, G., and Bishop, A. 2012. Making Science Real: Photo-Sharing in Biology and Chemistry. Research in Learning Technology. 20, p. 12